Next steps in nuclear negotiations: briefing on Capitol Hill


BASIC held a small, private briefing for Hill staff and non-proliferation experts on March 31, 2011. The meeting covered: negotiating with Russia on next steps in nuclear arms control after New START, the prospects for bringing into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the capabilities associated with the CTBT to monitor test explosions. The event was jointly convened by BASIC and the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC). BASIC Executive Director Paul Ingram moderated the event after introductory comments by VERTIC Executive Director Andreas Persbo.

Dr. Pavel Podvig, Director of the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces Project, covered the next steps after New START and explained why he thought a deal could be struck on tactical nuclear weapons. Dr. Edward Ifft, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a retired State Department officer who negotiated key arms control treaties, examined the U.S. commitment to the CTBT regime over the years, improvements to the verification system, and potential issues of concern when the Senate considers the pact for ratification. Dr. Raymond Willemann, director of planning at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, gave an illustrated talk on the effectiveness of seismic monitoring under the CTBT regime.

A summary of the panelists' comments is below:

Dr. Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Strategic Forces Project

Podvig was overall fairly optimistic about the bilateral arms control environment between the United States and Russia. In particular he stated that the framework of the New START treaty could be applicable to lower numbers of strategic nuclear weapons – if they are reduced to 1,000 or even to zero. But he challenged the conventional wisdom in Washington about negotiating with Russia reductions of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), and the “common perception” that Russia values its TNW. He argued that TNW had no real place in Russian doctrine because it specified the use of nuclear weapons only in cases of state survival, in which context strategic nuclear weapons would be used, rather than tactical. He also cast doubt on the assumption that Moscow is deeply concerned about the U.S. TNW. Thus he felt that the current fashionable ideas in D.C., on an aggregate limit, are exactly the wrong approach. He said that TNW should be addressed as a discrete issue precisely because TNW as currently considered have little worth and including them in an aggregate limit only increases their utility, if only as bargaining chips. “To bring them into the overall discussion would imply they have some value, and that is the wrong message to send,” he said.

On missile defense, where Russia retains concerns that future U.S. plans could undermine Russian strategic deterrence, Podvig said it was important that both countries are “on the same page”.

Turning to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, he said he believed that Russian scientists and weapons designers were not opposed to the CTBT (indeed, Russia has signed and ratified it), but had no special case to support it either. They were confident in their computer models and their ability to design warheads that worked. Podvig also emphasized the difference in culture between Russia and the United States: in the latter country, total reliability is seen as a necessity, whereas this is not the case with Russia (hence why the issue of testing or lack thereof is weighed differently in the two countries).

Dr. Edward Ifft, former U.S. State Department negotiator, adjunct professor, Security Studies Program at Georgetown University

Ifft pointed out that “most of the world” would identify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as the top priority on the arms control agenda. He emphasized the continual (theoretical) commitment of the United States—and other nuclear powers—to a global test ban treaty that stretches all the way back to the early 1960s with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and has been continually mentioned in numerous treaty preambles and articles ever since. The commitment has been noted and reinforced for 50 years, but for the past decade and a half the treaty has languished in the United States due to strong opposition, founded among other things upon the issue of verification. But the state of the International Monitoring System (IMS) has improved dramatically since the treaty was rejected by the Senate in 1999, and is about 80% completed using four different technologies across 337 facilities all over the world (including Antarctica) to detect nuclear explosions. Even in its unfinished state, its seismic stations were able to detect both North Korean tests. In addition to the IMS, there are national means, not only of the United States, but also other countries, contributing to monitoring of possible tests.

Ifft said that because of promises made over the years, the United States has a “moral obligation” to ratify the CTBT.

Addressing the possibility of evading the treaty, he mentioned very low yield explosions. But referring to the beginnings of a debate in the United States over the lack of definition in the treaty of what constitutes a nuclear explosion, he said that “if we think there is a problem, there are channels” through which to resolve it.

Ifft believes that the remaining holdouts to CTBT ratification (states listed in the treaty’s Annex II which must ratify before the pact can come into force) fall into four camps: the United States, China and Indonesia; Israel, Egypt, and Iran; India and Pakistan; and North Korea. He suggested that acceptance within these groups must be linked, and that once one of the group will move toward ratification the others will follow. North Korea stands alone; Ifft said that the solution could be to make Pyongyang's acceptance of the CTBT part of an overall settlement of nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula.

Dr. Ray Willemann, director of planning, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS)

Dr. Raymond Willemann, IRISWillemann spoke about seismic monitoring and the effectiveness of the technology. Current technology can detect disturbances underground below magnitude 4 (and closer to 3 in many areas), which corresponds to below a one kiloton explosion – smaller than likely in the first test by a would-be nuclear power. There are now thousands more seismic stations around the globe than in the recent past, as exemplified by data from 2,714 permanent broadband seismic stations in the IRIS Data Management System compared to 1,784 in 1999. The disturbance patterns of explosions are sufficiently different from earthquakes that release similar amounts of energy that they can be differentiated with data from sufficiently nearby stations. While nuclear explosions and chemical explosions of similar energy-release are similar in pattern, most large chemical explosions are “ripple-fired” mining activity, and it is likely that skilled interpreters would be able to differentiate between the two.

However, although the International Monitoring System (IMS) is about 80% complete, the main problem is where that remaining 20% lies, for it tends to be clustered in certain areas. China, for example, has monitoring stations but does not send information to the International Data Center because it feels no obligation to integrate existing stations before the CTBT is actually ratified by all remaining holdout countries (which include China itself). However, China does allow temporary academic seismic missions into its western hinterland, which are able to then learn a good deal about how energy propagates through that part of the world’s terrain and help in seismic analyses regardless of whether China’s monitoring stations are integrated or not.

Addressing the prospects for entry into force of the CTBT, Willemann said that the U.S. has a national interest in continued operation of the CTBT Organization’s Monitoring System, Communications Infrastructure, and International Data Center – and in the Organization’s legal and technical capability to conduct on-site inspections.

In the early days, the Vienna-based CTBTO had attracted ambitious young scientists, but Willemann commented: “I don’t know how many decades the CTBTO can continue if (the treaty) is not ratified.”